Monday, 26 September 2016

Trinity 18: the life that really is life.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

“Sumptuously” - now there’s a wonderful, evocative word. It’s an interesting word too, with a long history. It comes from the Latin word  - “sumptus” - expense . Throughout history nations have passed what are called “sumptuary laws”, laws which govern what people of different classes are allowed to wear. In Ancient Rome, only the Emperor was allowed to wear purple, dyed with the fantastically expensive Tyrian purple dye made from the tiny murex shell . Senators were allowed a purple stripe on their togas, but that was all. There were sumptuary laws in Medieval England too, laying down what kinds of fabrics and furs different ranks were allowed. Again, purple was a restricted colour. Only the royal family could wear it on outer garments. Lower ranks of the aristocracy could have it in the lining of their clothes, but ordinary people couldn’t wear it at all.  The whole complicated business was designed to reinforce the pecking order. Just by looking at someone you could tell how important they were.

The rich man in Jesus’s story is dressed in that exclusive purple (presumably hoping the emperor won’t notice), and he’s feasting sumptuously not just now and then, but every day.  He isn’t just rich, he is seriously rich. This is the man who has everything. The man who has believed his own PR and is quite sure he’s Somebody, with a capital S.

The original Greek word translated as “sumptuously” captures that meaning in a slightly different way.  It’s the word lamprōs.  It gives us our English word lamp, so you won’t be surprised to hear that it means shining, brilliant, splendid. This man’s wealth shines out of him. It announces his importance just like his purple robes do.

There’s an effortless sense of entitlement about him. He glides through life, expecting that it will all go his way. Even after death, when he’s in torment in Hades, he still feels entitled. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” he says. Why on earth should he think that Lazarus is going to traipse all the way down there to him, when he is, for the first time in his life, safe and comfortable at Abraham’s side? Yet still somehow he assumes that he only has to clap his hands and his needs will be met. And when Abraham tells him that isn’t going to happen, he still can’t give up the feeling that the universe owes him something. “Send him to my brothers then” he says… He hasn’t caught on that Lazarus isn’t at his beck and call.

The rich man assumes he is entitled, important, someone whom others should notice. And yet there’s a fascinating thing about this story. He may think he’s entitled, but actually in this story, he has no title, no name at all. It is the beggar, Lazarus, who is named.  It’s the only time in any of Jesus’ parables that a character is named, so it’s certainly deliberate. The rich man could be any rich man, but Lazarus who has been treated like a nobody, is a precious individual.  Luke has a habit of focussing in his Gospel on the people no one else notices. Right at the beginning, Mary sings the praise of God who “puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” This story is an illustration of what that looks like.

So, although the rich man may seem at the beginning to be the star of this story – the one who shines brightest – actually it is this overlooked, forgotten beggar who is its real heart.

So let’s put that brilliant, shiny rich man to one side and think about Lazarus instead. What are we told about him – and what are we not told about him?
Let’s start with the first half of the question.
When the story begins he’s lying at the gates of the rich man’s house, presumably because that seems like a good place to beg from, a place where people with the means to help will see him. Except that they don’t. Despite the fact that this rich man must have had to step over him and around him every time he went in and out, he seems to take no notice of him at all.

Lazarus lies there covered in sores.  He’s helpless. We’re told that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” He doesn’t want to “feast sumptuously”, just to have enough “to satisfy his hunger”, but even this is denied to him. He’s out by the gate, far from the table, and the rich man can’t even be bothered to send the leftovers out to him.

Even the dogs lick his sores, we are told. Dogs were regarded as unclean, so this is the final degradation for a man who has fallen about as low as it is possible to get.  If the rich man represents  the epitome of wealth, Lazarus represents the epitome of poverty. But it’s all about to change.

Lazarus dies, and we are told that he’s “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham”. It’s a wonderful, flowery image – it could have come straight off the front of a sympathy card. In stark contrast , all we’re told about the rich man is that he “also died and was buried”. No angels, no Abraham, no wafting through the skies for him!  But Lazarus is safe, at Abraham’s side, honoured in death as he never was in life.

So that’s what we are told about Lazarus. But what we aren’t told is, in some ways just as important. We aren’t told that he’s good, or pious, or holy or deserving. We aren’t told that he was a hard-working man who, through no fault of his own had fallen on bad times.

Jesus’ parable was almost certainly based on a well-known folktale of the time in which a poor but honest man and a rich, dishonest one find their positions reversed in the afterlife. It’s a theme which you’ll find in folktales through the ages, but Jesus’ puts his own distinctive slant on this story, and, in fact, cunningly subverts it.

This poor man is lifted up simply because he is poor, and because his abject suffering is an affront to God in itself. This is not how God wants his world to be. Throughout the Bible he tells us so.  The laws of ancient Israel, given by God to Moses, were designed to prevent wealth being heaped up by the powerful. Land couldn’t be permanently bought and sold. Debts must be forgiven every 50 years. Fields weren’t to be reaped to the edges, so that the landless could share in the harvest. It was all meant to stop inequality becoming entrenched. If God’s  people lived as they should, there shouldn’t be beggars at anyone’s gates. 

This parable isn’t about a poor but honest man finally being rewarded for his goodness despite the fact that both rich and poor have often told and heard it that way. The rich have told it as a sop to appease the poor.   “Accept your lot gracefully now, and you’ll have your reward in heaven later.” The poor have told it as a rather desperate wish-fulfilment. If I am good enough and clever enough it will all come out right for me in the end. But this parable doesn’t say either of those things. Instead it’s a blistering reminder that no one deserves poverty and that those who allow it to happen when they could have prevented it will one day have serious questions to answer. It tells us too, that poverty damages both poor and rich in different ways. If we define people’s worth by their wealth, as this rich man does, we blind ourselves to the true humanity and  personhood of those we think are beneath us. We miss the gift they bring, the blessing of God that is in them.

We’re told that this parable is addressed to “those among the Pharisees who loved money”. Pharisees weren’t usually people of high status. They weren’t necessarily rich, but it seems that some of them wanted to be, and the reason they wanted to be was that they believed that God gave wealth to those he specially loved, that it was a sign of his blessing. If you were poor it meant you’d fallen out of his favour.  “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as we say. Jesus story was a stark reminder that that was nonsense. Lazarus looked as poor as you could be, but God loved him and held him close.  The rich man, dazzled during his lifetime by his own brilliance, found that when his light went out in death, he was on his own.

The first reading hit the nail on the head. It warns us that those who “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches” are riding for a fall. “We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it” says the reading. If we want “the life that really is life” then we will only find it letting our lives be shaped by God. It is his unconditional love for us which gives us the security we really crave, an unconditional love that extends to everyone around us too. When we have that security, we are able to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.  We don’t have to hoard what we have or put others down to feel that we matter.

Next week we celebrate our Harvest Festival and, as usual, we’ll be taking a collection for the Diocese’s Poverty and Hope appeal. You were given a leaflet with some details of the projects it supports as you came in. It’s very easy for us to skim this and forget it, even if we stuff some money in the collection next week anyway, but in some ways the stories in the leaflet are as important as the money. They tell us that what might seem like an anonymous, needy crowd, is really made up of people like us; our brothers and sisters,  people with names and hopes and dreams, people with gifts to give, people in whom God lives and works, people who are an infinitely greater blessing to the world than the money we have in the bank. So I hope you’ll take the leaflets home, read them, pray about them, and give generously, so that both they and we can “take hold of the life that really is life”.


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Trinity 15 A reason to party?

Luke 15.1-10, 1 Timothy 1.12-17 & Exodus 32.7-14
The weather is just starting to turn a little autumnal, the first leaves are parting company with the trees, school and work are back in full swing. Well, at least this was preceded by a few weeks of fine sunny weather and it was during this time that I asked a friend ‘how was your weekend?’ She told me that the great weather resulted in her throwing a spontaneous party in the garden to celebrate and enjoy the warmth, share it with friends, have a BBQ with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. ‘Sounds great’ I said, ‘well some neighbours didn’t seem to think so’ she replied, ‘after complaining once they returned to tell us they were calling the police.’ They obviously couldn’t understand the need for this outpouring of joy and celebration because summer had finally arrived in England. Or more likely they just had work to do or children who needed to sleep. I can remember my late uncle telling me that the first flat he ever lived in was below a man that loved to play loud reggae music into the early hours of the morning. He finally had enough and went to ask the man why he did this to which he received the disarming reply ‘it’s coz I love you man, I don’t just share my music with anybody!’ It might sometimes be inconvenient to us but we often don’t appreciate why people feel the need to party.

In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us of a man who leaves his 99 sheep to find 1 sheep lost in the wilderness. When he finds the sheep he ‘comes home, calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them rejoice with me for I have just found my sheep that was lost’. You can cut the tension with a knife between the groups of people listening to Jesus tell this parable. ‘This isn’t how it works’ the Pharisees and temple legal experts are thinking, if a sheep is stupid enough to wander off into the wilderness it brings the consequences that follow upon itself. Many had a similar attitude to those who were outcasts and homeless, forced into begging and prostitution to survive, they brought this upon themselves. But to the others, including tax collectors hated by most because they collected money for the occupying Roman army and sinners, including people labelled as such because they couldn’t keep the countless laws around ritual washing, there is a message of great hope to be heard. Their ears prick up and we are told that they ‘were coming near to listen to Jesus’.

 Jesus is telling both groups that there is hope for them but a bit like people who can’t see the reason for a party, who like consistent order and predictability, the Pharisees don’t want to know. They think that they already know God and this was a direct challenge to their established system of sacrificing animals to him in the temple to atone for sins, their mistaken belief was that surely God wants something in return. By thinking in this way the Jews made God small, tidy and contained. Jesus came to tell all willing to listen that God isn’t like this, he’s bigger than we can understand, his love for us is unconditional, extravagant, and some might even say crazy. Yet if we will simply accept the love he offers there is much rejoicing in heaven. We too can be mean minded and guilty of trying to restrict his love sometimes because of what we are often brought up to perceive as fair play.

If we were in a class at school and had all worked hard to get our homework in on time we might be a bit peeved if we are left sitting in the classroom while the teacher goes off to find the child who is playing truant and gently guides him back. If we’ve spent all our lives praying, worshipping, being people that belong to a church it’s important that we help people who do none of these things to know that God is just as interested in them as us. People often feel unworthy turning to God only when their lives go ‘belly up’, perhaps facing bereavement, ill health or having exhausted all the other things that they hoped would make their lives meaningful. They might have a sense that God won’t want them now, that they are trying to sneak in through the back door, but they are met with a God who welcomes them with open arms and proclaims ‘ you come in through any door you want, even climb in through a window if you like but just make sure you do come. God loves his entire creation, every single person matters.

We become conditioned to accept that there is always a certain percentage of wastage. Supermarkets accept that a certain amount of food will never be sold and therefore wasted and tragically nations can even come to accept that a certain amount of civilians will be accidentally killed during wartime bombing campaigns. God is not like this, his love extends to everyone, including the Pharisees but the problem is that they don’t want to explore a relationship with God beyond the confines of their system.

Some here will know that to carry a small child can be more than a matter of simple transportation, it can be an expression of love and a feeling of joy. Though there are also occasions when you might retrieve the child because it has done something bad, small children often emit unpleasant smells and have been known to wriggle, kick and embarrass adults by screaming out loud in public places as if they were being tortured. I don’t know if you can remember being carried as a child yourself. Several people have said to me that they would pretend to be asleep after arriving back home at night in the car in order to be carried to their bed by their loving parent, enjoying a sense of warmth and protection. To me there’s a hint of this in the parable, if you can allow yourself to imagine it, God the mother or father is prepared to lay us his children across his shoulders and bring us home. Even if we’ve been bad, even if we’re smelly and horrible there’s no sense that he wants to come and kick our backsides, make his forgiveness conditional upon future behaviour, He just wants us back with him. The second parable we heard was about the woman who lost a coin. Oh well, she had 9 others just like it. Those hearing the story may well have immediately related to the 10 silver coins which traditionally comprised a Jewish girl’s dowry so this wasn’t the equivalent of losing a pound coin down the back of the sofa. In Jewish marriage it was considered that the family of the groom gained, and the family of the bride lost, a valuable member who helped with all household tasks. It therefore seemed reasonable that the father of the groom should pay the father of the bride the equivalent of her value. Over time the dowry lost its original meaning as a purchase price paid to the father for his daughter and became a gift to the relatives of the bride, a kind father would give the dowry to his daughter. So you can see that those hearing the story would have been anxious for her to keep the precious gift whole and they would have appreciated the joy and relief when felt when the coin was found.The process of patient and methodical searching for the coin suggests that God is prepared to devote endless energy into finding one of his which has gone astray, shining light into dark places to find what he is looking for.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy he aligns himself with the lost sheep as he tells of his personal experience of God’s ridiculously generous grace to him, a man who was previously a violent persecutor of Christian’s. In the knowledge that Jesus came to save people just like him and us his reaction is also an outpouring of joy and praise. It all sounds like neat and overly simple evangelism on the face of it, but there is a hint of the complicated messy reality that is experienced by many of us when Paul refers to the fact that ‘Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience’. As we look at ourselves I expect we think that he’s going to need every ounce.

If we read on in Luke we would immediately come to the story of the Prodigal Son completing a trilogy proclaiming aspects of God, to be found in a searching shepherd, a searching woman and a loving father. Often studying the bible results in us sensing a call to take practical action but it’s equally important to appreciate that sometimes we are called to inaction. God just wants us to sit quietly for a moment and acknowledge who he is, what he has done for us and how much each one of us is loved. That’s it, no catch, no conditions. If that happens to result in an outpouring of praise in the next hymn or any other time, we can be sure that God is there ready and waiting to get the party started.

Kevin Bright 11th September 2016

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Trinity 15: What's mine is mine?

Listen to the audio version here (sorry about the bumps and shuffling at the beginning!)

Happy new year…At least that’s how it often feels at the beginning of September, especialy if you have any connection with the teaching profession, or have children at school or university, or are a student yourself. It’s a time when all sorts of groups and activities start up again after the summer break, so there’s all sorts of informal learning in the offing as well. Whether you are a four-year-old heading off into your reception class in uniform that’s miles too big, or an adult starting a new evening class , the start of the academic year can seem as if it is full of promise. But that promise often doesn’t last long. By Christmas we start to realise that it isn’t enough just to sign up, or even turn up. If we want to learn anything, we have to work at it, and give up our time and energy to it. However skilful our teachers, if we don’t concentrate and practice very little is going to sink in. Learning doesn’t happen by magic. No one else can do it for you. You have to apply your own brain to the task, and that can be hard going.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about learning.  Jesus is talking to the crowds who follow him – large crowds, we are told. He’s very popular. People enjoy his stories and marvel at his miracles. He’s got a lot of fans. But it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t want fans. He wants disciples. “Disciple” literally means “learner”.  It comes from the same Latin word that gives us “discipline”.  Disciples are people who engage in disciplined, intentional work in order to learn something.

What does it take to become a disciple of Jesus, to learn from him? Jesus had some pretty challenging things to say about it. “You can’t learn from me” , he said, “unless you give up all your possessions. You can’t learn from me unless you are prepared to hate your family, and even your own life.” It’s very strong stuff, and we need to be careful how we read it.  It’s a good example of a passage where you’ve got to understand the context  if you aren’t to end up in a terrible mess.

Jesus is using deliberately provocative, over-the-top language because he needs this large, excited crowd to understand what following him might lead to. It’s one thing to tag along for the ride for a day or two, maybe even to be healed of some illness that has been troubling them, but allying themselves with him in the long-term is another matter. That will involve radical change, and maybe radical sacrifice too. He wants to offer them something which will transform them, setting them free forever, not just for a day or two, but there’ll be a price to pay. If they want to be learners rather than just hangers-on, they will need to commit themselves, and to be prepared to give up whatever gets in the way of that commitment.

“None of you can become my disciple – my learner – if you do not give up all your possessions.”

We might be tempted to switch off at this point, defeated by the scale of that statement, but let’s hang on in there with Jesus and really listen.  He isn’t saying that we should live without material things. That would be impossible. We have to eat. We need clothes and shelter. No one can live without material stuff. And, in any case, the Bible doesn’t say that material things are bad.  In fact, it takes quite the opposite view. It starts with a wonderful celebration of the material stuff of the world. God made it, says the book of Genesis, and pronounced it “very good”. The Bible is full of celebration of the goodness and generosity of God; “wine that gladdens the human heart and oil that makes the face shine”  as Psalm 104 puts it. Many philosophies and religions of the time saw the material world as evil, a prison for immaterial souls, but the Jewish people disagreed. They proclaimed that it was mightily blessed by God. So Jesus isn’t calling us to a body-defying, self- punishing asceticism here. What he is warning against are “possessions”, not just material things in themselves.

What’s the difference? Material stuff is the stuff that is all around me, the stuff I am made of. A possession is something I possess, something I control, something I can grasp and keep, or think I can , something I think of as “mine”.

I don’t know if you’ve come across the Toddlers’ Laws of Possession, but if you have ever had small children you will recognise the sentiment. This is what they say a toddler is thinking:

If I like it, it's mine.
If it's in my hand, it's mine.
If I can take it from you, it's mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
If I’ve got one like it, it's mine.
If I saw it first, it's mine.
If you are playing with it and you put it down, it’s mine.
If it’s broken, it’s yours.
If it’s broken but you are enjoying playing with the pieces, it’s mine again.
If there’s any doubt about it, it’s mine.

That’s what possession looks like – and it’s not just toddlers who behave like this. We all do to some extent. The problem with this attitude is not just that it causes conflict; it’s that it’s based on a chain of misconceptions.

An attitude of possession is only possible if we believe that we can “own” things – land, goods, people, status, jobs – that they can be exclusively, permanently “ours” in some sense, but that isn’t ever really the case. All that we have has come to us from others. “Our” physical bodies are built from the genetic material of our parents and the food that the good earth gives us. “Our” achievements have been gained with the help of teachers, parents, and many others who have encouraged us along the way or paved the way for what we have done. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. “Our” goods are produced by the labour of others . “Our” homes and communities are built and maintained by the skills of those who can do things we can’t – building, engineering, problem-solving. We may pay for these goods and services, but we depend on others having the skills and willingness to do the task in the first place.  And the money we use to buy them is earned because someone else has decided they want to pay for what we offer. Without others, including many we will never see or know, we would have nothing. We couldn’t survive, let along thrive, without them.  So In what sense is anything we have really “ours”.

And the things we think of as “ours” are only ever lent to us. We hold them for the course of our brief lives at the very most, and maybe not even that. They can slip from our hands in a moment.  Those Syrian refugees who have landed on our shores with nothing had homes, jobs and belongings they thought were theirs forever, but now they’ve only got the clothes they stand up in. Redundancy or illness can strip away overnight the things we thought were ours to keep – our money, our health, the future we were hoping for. If we have relied on these things for our sense of self-worth, if we have hedged ourselves about with our possessions, hoping they’ll protect us forever from helplessness and want, we’ll find ourselves in deep trouble. What are we to do without them? If we have let our possessions defined us, who are we without them?

Even our families, says Jesus, can become a problem if we treat them as things to possess and control, or allow them to treat us that way.  Families can be wonderful. They can give us safe space to grow into the people God wants us to be, but if we place all our hope and security in them, if we try to be everything to them and expect them to be everything to us, to meet all our needs, we set ourselves up for failure and heartache.

The second reading we heard today – the whole of the very short letter of Paul to Philemon – underlines that danger. Paul’s in prison, but he’s not alone there. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, is with him, not as a prisoner but as a helper to him. We don’t know why Onesimus is with Paul. He might have run away from Philemon, or been sent away by him to serve Paul, but in the course of his time with him, he has become a Christian. Now Paul is sending him home, but he’s hoping that Philemon will be able to see Onesimus not as his possession, but as his “beloved brother”, taking him back as a sibling, not a slave. He’s calling for a radical rethinking of the relationships in this, typical, slave-owning, household . The early Christian communities were called to be places of equality and freedom, where there was supposed to be neither Greek nor Jew, male and female, slave and free. In a society where everyone in a household was “owned” in some sense by the paterfamilias, the head of the household – they even had the right to kill them - that was a radical idea. People weren’t to be treated as possessions, simply there to meet a need or fit into a predetermined slot in the household.

Christians struggled with it then, and they still struggle with it now. We still feel we are entitled to tell others what they can and can’t do, and get upset if they won’t conform. Paul challenges us, like Philemon, to think again.     

When Jesus tells us to give up our possessions – whether things or people - it’s not just a spot of de-cluttering he has in mind; it’s the attitude of possessiveness he wants us to lose.  He knows that it’s only when we stop looking at things - or people - as possessions, that we can start seeing them as the gifts they really are, gifts to celebrate and give thanks for, not security blankets to cling anxiously to for fear of being left with nothing.

And when we can see that, we might also see that God is all we really need to possess and be possessed by. In the end, it doesn’t matter what is “ours” so long as we are his.